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Charles James Was an Artist—But Don't Hang His Works in a Museum

Is the fashion designer Charles James a major twentieth-century artist? James’s ball gowns, coats, dresses, and hats, along with his sketches, fragments of writings, and pronouncements on art, were all lavishly on display at the new Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Metropolitan Museum 
of Art this summer, and they are being treated with the kind of seriousness and acclaim given to Rodin or Rothko or any other major figure in the history of art. The Met, capitalizing on the contemporary fascination with fashion and celebrity, and following on its blockbuster Alexander McQueen exhibit in 2011, has pulled out the stops for Charles James: there was an opulent, celebrity-filled opening (Michelle Obama cut the ribbon) and the museum’s annual evening gala also honored James, with the requisite red-
carpet spectacle of extravagant dresses with le tout New York in attendance. The reviews of the exhibition have been sensational, and the catalogue is a glamorous and uncritical homage to James.

The message conveyed in all this, however, goes further still. The Met seems to be telling us—showing us—that we should view not just James, but dress and fashion more generally, as high art. This is not a new argument, of course, but in spite of past scholarly and curatorial efforts, it has never decisively taken hold. And for many of us now, the idea will not be an easy one to swallow: today’s world of haute couture seems to perpetuate the worst excesses of our time, with its unnaturally thin (and starving) models, outrageous prices, exploitative work practices, and obsession with money and vanity and fame. James would seem the perfect antidote, and in many ways he is: a great designer who was never a celebrity (few outside the field of fashion have ever heard of him), an inveterate craftsman who was also a genuinely imaginative artist—a sculptor of satin and silk willing to sacrifice everything including profits for the perfect seam—who died impoverished and defeated by the tidal wave of popular commercialism that swept American fashion and art into the 1960s. And now James has been revived and called upon to elevate fashion once and for all to the level of fine art.

Charles James was born into wealth in 1906 and raised at Agincourt House, his family residence in Surrey, England. He had a classic privileged Edwardian childhood: materially sensual, emotionally deprived. His father was a captain in the British army, a rigid and cold man who would eventually disinherit his son for his scandalous choice of profession, not to mention his flamboyant homosexuality. His mother, a rich American socialite from Chicago, was more sympathetic, and her friends later became James’s clients.

But first James had to endure the intellectually and sexually intense—and socially cruel—
world of the English boarding school. At Harrow in 1919 he met Cecil Beaton and Evelyn Waugh, and became one of the “Bright Young People” whom Waugh would later describe in Vile Bodies, dissolute, rebellious, and in some way lost to a brutal world war they were too young to fight. The constant round of parties, the obsession with dressing and cross-dressing, cosmetics, alcohol, casual sex, and a self-dramatizing and uncontrolled lifestyle testified to an almost giddy emptiness inside.

In search perhaps of some stability, and at his father’s behest, James resentfully tried and spectacularly failed to work in business: at Con Ed in Chicago in 1924, he could be found hawking batik-dyed silk beach wraps to his bemused co-workers instead of performing his desk duties. A short stint in an architectural unit was more to his liking: structural engineering, physics, and spatial design—concepts that applied to bodies as much as to buildings appealed to him. Surprisingly, this mini-apprenticeship constituted the only formal training he had in art. The rest he picked up as he went along, beginning with the millinery trade. His next business venture was his own: hats. He would personally cut, steam, and mold them on women’s heads. He had an eye for style and line, and as his clientele grew he expanded into dress and fashion design.

Success followed on success: New York, London, Paris. He worked with Beaton at Vogue in New York, and in Paris in the early 1930s he met Paul Poiret, the doyen of French fashion, whose own work was suffused with the sumptuous orientalism and theatricality of the Ballets Russes. He even lived across the hall from Cocteau, and they worked together on fabric designs. There was Chanel, and Balenciaga, too, and the young Christian Dior—who would later credit James as the mind, or at least the inspiration, behind his postwar “New Look.” James was also interested in art, especially in surrealism, and he admired (and knew) Tchelitchew, Dalí, and 
Bérard, among others.

By 1940, James was settled—or as settled 
as he would ever be—in New York, attempting to make fashion American at the same time that George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein were setting out to make ballet American, and Aaron Copland and other 
composers were defining a new native sound. James belonged to a generation of European artists and intellectuals who were making the United States—and New York in particular—both their home and the cultural capital of the world. He accumulated clients: wealthy society ladies, but also 
luminaries of theater and film, such as Adele Astaire, Marlene Dietrich, Gypsy Rose Lee (there she is at a March of Dimes benefit, pulling dollar bills from her stockings). He later made a list of “clients I would have liked to dress” but never did: Gertrude Stein (“massive elegance”), Greta Garbo (“need I say”), Ava Gardner (“beautifully sensual”), Maria Callas (“pure magic”), 
Lana Turner (“beautiful”), Mick Jagger (“sexy bastard”), and David Bowie (“androgynously beautiful”). He “abhorred” Erté.

James, who made something of a crusade of raising fashion to the respectability of an art or science, did not present himself as a dressmaker: he was an engineer, a scientist, a researcher, and (he had a pretentious side) a “sartorial structural architect.” At the end of his life he delivered lectures on the “Calculus of Fashion” and won a Guggenheim to write a book titled Meta-Morphology—
or Fashion Engineering Procedures. “Cut in dressmaking is like grammar in a language,” he insisted. “A good design should be like a well-made sentence, and it should only express one idea at a time.” From very early 
on he talked about working on “theses,” concrete experimental tailoring ideas that drove his work.

Why should darts, he asked, be restricted to bust and hips? James used them everywhere he needed them. Why should side seams dictate a dress? James shifted them front or back, or left them out altogether. (He noted the “importance of having no side seams to make a woman who has a bad body line seem to have a good one.”) And—an early innovation—why not employ zippers, customarily used on tobacco packages, to fasten fabric—and not necessarily up and down, but in a more attractive way, a closely fitted and curved zipper spiraling at the waist? Spirals, drapery, his own “Z-cut,” fabric cut on the bias: James spent years trying to build, or “engineer,” ease of movement into his clothing. The exhibition at the Met shows this and other innovations with robotic digital technology (for every dress there is a screen) and cameras with arms that reach out to scan the dress and visually dissect and analyze its cut and construction, wrapping and 
unwrapping fabric to reveal its geometry and James’s meticulous attention to the contours of a woman’s body.

Although James dressed many rich women—fitting and molding fabric to their bodies on the spot, just as he had cut hats on heads—he also worked to make clothes that would fit a mass market. From early in his career he had contracts with department stores—Best and Co., Ohrbach’s, Lord and Taylor—and set his mind to turning his design innovations into commercially viable products. His “taxi dress” of 1929, a neat and simple wrap dress with curved zipper, designed so that a woman could easily get in and out of it in a taxi (a sign of the erotic impulse animating all of his work), was sold in the accessories department of Best and Co. in 1933 in small, sealed plastic packages.

Yet James’s life continually got in the way of his art. His business failures were legendary: broken contracts, debt, legal suits, tax collectors clearing out his studio and confiscating everything, not to mention his own recklessly luxurious lifestyle. He lived most of his life in expensive hotels, as if he were a man of wealth, except that he had none. When he married (to the bemusement of his gay friends) one of his clients, Nancy Lee Gregory—wealthy, young, 
beautiful—and had two children, things grew worse: he burned through her fortune with his design schemes, and they both fell under the “care” and drug addictions of Dr. Max Jacobson, known also as “Dr. Feelgood,” as lawsuits and James’s mismanaged affairs accumulated, finally driving the couple to divorce.

By 1964, James was living in the run-down Chelsea Hotel, where he stayed until his death in 1978, mostly in bed, drug-
addled and surrounded by a chaotic litter of books, memorabilia, half-finished projects, food, and his beagle, Sputnik. (The maids refused to enter.) He kept working—
Halston, then up and coming, hired him to develop new ideas; but once again James became so engrossed in his designs that he found it impossible to meet the demands of commercial production. At this point in his life, however, the problem may have had more to do with isolation and the accelerating pace of change in the world around him. James spent several years experimenting with a new design for unisex pants, including sculptures to understand how the penis might affect the fit. By then, of course, fashion had experienced its own counter-couture revolution: blue jeans.

In 1948, Cecil Beaton posed a photo of 
James’s dresses for Vogue that has become emblematic of James’s style. We are in a high-ceilinged, chandeliered salon, a fantasy of casual aristocratic luxury, with women (no men) in long white gloves and sumptuous pastel ball gowns of taffeta, satin, and crepe, gorgeously draped in long voluminous fabrics that swirl around their bodies—drapery that appears almost sculptural in its solid and smooth surfaces and lines. The dresses are mostly strapless—skin is a fabric, 
too—and “engineered” with old-world stays, panniers, boned bodices, crinoline hoops. Beaton’s soft light and shadow create a painterly wash of sensuality, a picture of leisure and blasé wealth. The women are taken up in genteel conversation or drinking tea; one adjusts a hair, another gazes blankly in a mirror. Everything reflects: the shiny surfaces of the dresses, the large hanging mirrors on the walls, even Beaton’s camera is a kind of looking glass—we are on the other side, peering through his lens at this self-consciously staged luxury.

Seen through Beaton’s eyes, James’s work in the 1940s and 1950s seems decadent and vacuous, part of a well-documented postwar retreat from both the horrors of conflict and, later, the banality of suburban middle-class life, into a fantasy world of nineteenth-century wealth and society. It was a universe as cut-off and remote, and apparently as alluring, as James’s own Edwardian cocoon—or today’s universe of the one percent. If we look more closely, though, James was right: even his most extravagant and voluminous ball gowns are not nineteenth-century confections at all. To the contrary, the bigger and more extreme James’s dresses became—and 
several are too wide to fit through a door—the more modern they were in both composition and style. The Clover Leaf Ball Gown, from 1953, a strapless, cantilevered dress of ice-white silk satin with faille and black silk-rayon velvet, resembles an abstract painting, with a fitted bodice and wide-angled undulating skirt of Rothko-like panels hanging from the hips of a woman.

It is also a forbidding dress, with strangely distorted proportions: the huge, stiff skirt surrounds the woman’s lower body in a moat of fabric, making her quite literally unapproachable. Indeed, many of James’s women—and his dresses—seem unapproachable. These are not the kind of dresses you feel comfortable in, and erotic as they may appear, they are not the kind of dresses that could easily be undressed. Instead, they wrap, sheath, or hug the body, accentuating and exaggerating curves, breasts, hips. And the women whom James dressed appear to all have been endowed with the same figures: generous, open shoulders, broad backs, small breasts, slim waists, hour-glass hips. Partly this was skill, and James saw it as his job to re-fashion even the most “misshapen” women to look more like his ideal. “The feminine figure is intrinsically wrong, and can be corrected only by good posture and fashion,” he remarked. The Venus de Milo . . . would be most unfashionable unless she had 
a good dressmaker.” 

The point is, James did not mold the dress to the body: he molded the dress to the dress. The dress then subtly righted the “intrinsically wrong” body. Appearances to the contrary, his clothes were never skin-tight, and all of that fabric barely touched the woman wearing it. James insisted that there must be a “pillow” or “breeze” of air between the fabric and the person. “It’s the air that’s sculptured,” he said, “not the silk; it touches the body in only two or three variable places.” The result was dresses that were more like sculptures or set designs than clothes. The women he dressed were to him merely another material, a flesh-and-blood fabric, to be incorporated into the dress that he was making. Or not. As one of his clients put it: “Charlie was sometimes so entranced by the shape he was ‘sculpting’ over one’s own shape, that when the dress arrived finished it was impossible to get into it. It existed on its own.”

“On its own” is the key to James’s art. A woman might have depended on the dress to make her look good, but the same was not true for the dress: it looked good, possibly better, without the woman. The gown was not an expression or extension of the woman wearing it, but an aesthetically and physically autonomous construction. This is a radically different view of dress than ours today. We assume that what we wear says something about who we are—“it’s so me”—but James was (consciously or not) drawing on a much older European idea of dress dating back at least to the seventeenth century, in which clothing indicated social stature or profession but never revealed personal things such as character. The person inside the dress was separate from the dress, which stood “on its own.”

James pulled this idea into the modern era, but with one vital difference: his dresses may have indicated social status, but for him that wasn’t really the point. His focus was not on a particular woman or her social position, but on something more abstract: the nude. James’s dresses “on their own” are like nudes in absentia: without the women, only the clothes. The real women were like posed models; the dresses were the resulting work of art, in line less with Chanel and Dior than with Ingres and Manet. And as Kenneth Clark taught us long ago, a nude is always clothed, however minimally, and never naked. Naked is primitive and bestial, while clothed is civilized and erotic. James’s dresses “on their own”—as pure clothes—were intensely erotic, fetishistic almost, in their yearning for the absent woman inside. At a time when painting and sculpture were moving decisively away from the human figure and toward abstraction, James was inventing—
dressing—a modern nude “from life.” His ball gowns are the result: ephemeral, ghostly, implied feminine forms made of fabric, 
air, and empty space.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Charles James retrospective, the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Was James addressing, in his unlikely way, the crisis of representation that preoccupied artists at the time? Cubists had solved it on the flat canvas by shattering the human form; some, including the Abstract Expressionists, were mainly leaving women, and the human figure, out of the picture; others, like Matisse, flattened and abstracted the human form. Artists in fashion, dance, and theater had fewer choices: they had to solve the problem of representation, and the radical rejection of traditions of narrative and figurative art, in three dimensions, on the body itself. James was thus drawing on modern innovations in art even as he set himself resolutely against them by depicting—in fabric—the female body.

Which brings us to mannequins and to surrealism. In 1949, James created a plaster form to help him mold ready-to-wear designs. Eventually he perfected the dimensions and called his new mannequins “Jennies” (after the actress Jennifer Jones, a model for the mannequin). But this kind of static doll fell short of his needs: he wanted his model to move. By the middle of the 1960s, after considerable effort, he had designed a “flexible sculpture” with stacked parts and a flexible rod through the spine that made it possible to move the mannequin and change its posture. At the Met these mannequins are displayed, like the dresses, on their own—as sketches 
or objets d’art, although they are more 
reminiscent of scientific instruments or geological elevations, their surfaces marked with numbers, patterns, seam lines, and other information charting the hills, valleys, and curves of a woman’s form. James was after a model of the body that would serve all women (no matter shape and size) in motion. It was another sign of his preoccupation with an ideal feminine form, but also with an empty form.

Here we find echoes of Dali, Tchelitchew, and the early surrealists, artists James noted as influences, who worked with mannequins, wax figures, and faceless statuary. Consider, for example, Tchelitchew’s eerie designs for the ballet Ode (1928) with choreography by Massine, which included a long rope strung at angles across the stage and hung with mannequin dolls in ball gowns, which the dancers—themselves dressed as mannequins in bodysuits with faceless masks—maneuvered around. James probably did not see this dance, but he certainly knew of these artists’ work, and was drawn to their taste for the new kinds of drama that might come from a blank and eviscerated human figure.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Karen Willis
Clover Leaf Evening Dress

Entering the exhibition at the Met, I was reminded of these mannequin dances, and their preoccupation with disorientation, eroticism, and a cold, abstracted view of beauty and the body. The James exhibit takes place in a large, dimly lit, and mirrored room (Beaton redux) with James’s gowns standing “on their own,” poised and regal, like so many dancers waiting to move. It is like being among ghosts, these dresses without women. More striking and disorienting still, James’s reflections on life and art are inscribed in pithy quotes directly onto the mirrors, so that when you read them you see yourself, the dresses, the other “guests” at the ball swirling behind you to vertiginous effect.

We may think we are in a museum, pacing a gallery and learning about James, but in fact we have entered the picture frame, or mounted the stage. This is art as theater: the dresses are actors and we wander and see ourselves reflected—mirrors but no fourth wall—in their midst. Distinctions between stage and street, audience and actors, museum and theater, are deliberately collapsed. This extraordinary effect is owing in large measure to Elizabeth 
Diller, Richard Scofidio, and Charles Renfro, 
who designed the exhibition. They are 
architects, of course, but Diller and Scofidio in particular spent decades working on conceptual art, and this exhibition is in many ways as much theirs as it is James’s. Just as theatrical troupes such as Punchdrunk are interested in immersion and a return to a kind of theater that makes the audience actors too, and just as visual and dance artists such as Tino Sehgal have tried to make art a performance by using museum-goers in an exhibition rather than having them walk around as passive viewers, so too Diller, Scofidio, and Renfro have quietly invited us to 
join James’s ball.

Effective as this may be in making us feel the strange beauty of James’s art, there is a significant cost: history and analysis are sacrificed to theatrical effect. This is art on art, rather than art history; it is designed to seduce, to make us feel rather than think or learn. As an approach to presenting dress, it is certainly valid, but there is no indication that the curators know the difference. Indeed, there is something awkward about the exhibition at the Met, as if the curators were caught between Diller, Scofidio, and Renfro and a more traditional art-historical presentation of the work with explanatory plaques and panels. As if to make the point, the James exhibit takes place in two separate spaces: the gowns are on display in the large ballroom on the first floor of the Met, whereas James’s early clothing, along with magazine articles, sketches, notes, ephemera, are housed many galleries away and down some stairs in the new Anna Wintour Costume Center. Upstairs we have James’s art; downstairs we have James’s history.

This might have worked, except that the exhibition rushes uncomfortably through the history. (One monitor scrolling through media coverage of James’s career moves so quickly that it is impossible to read.) Nor does the exhibition do much to make connections to art and artists that mattered to James, which could have shown the ways in which James fits with other twentieth-
century artists—and the ways in which fashion might belong to a broader and longer tradition of art. The catalogue could have taken up the burden here, but it fails to do so: glossy, beautifully produced, informative about James’s technical skills, it is also astonishingly narrow and has little to say about where James fits in the history of art 
or American culture.

This brings us, sadly and gratefully, to Anne Hollander, who died a few months ago. She was our greatest scholar of dress and culture and an outspoken advocate of taking clothes seriously. Hollander taught that “dressing is always picture making,” and showed in her books and her articles (many for these pages), and especially in her magisterial Seeing Through Clothes, that we always see clothes in the company of other images: from art, film, literature. Dress, she cautioned, is never “on its own.” This is certainly true for Charles James. How can we make sense of his clothing without images ranging from nudes and surrealism, to Hollywood circa 1930 and suburbia circa 1950, with Dior’s New Look 
somewhere in between

There is the additional problem, as Hollander noted, that an empty dress, whether on display at a museum or on a mannequin in a shop window, tends to prompt a narcissistic response: what would I, or my wife, or my lover, or my friend, look like in that? This reduces the dress to an expression of a person, and explains in part why people either love or hate James: they see him for what his taste says about their own. People who dismiss James because he seems to them a celebration of rich women and one percent culture are missing just as much as those gala-goers who see in James a mirror image of their own wealth and stature.

If fashion is to be unhinged from vanity and treated as a serious art, we will need to see dress in aesthetic rather than social and personal terms. And to do that, we need a far more developed critical discourse than we now have, as the Met’s beautiful but decidedly insider catalogue unwittingly demonstrates. Hollander put it this way: “In speaking of dress, I am always concerned either with line and form or with sex and poetry, not with money and power. I’m working from the idea that sexuality and imagination are what originally produce the extraordinary formal imagery that can cause money and power to be reflected in clothes, along with the other things reflected there.”

Where does this leave us? Should we think of James—and fashion—as high art? The question is perhaps misleading. Dress, like dance, food, or conversation and the so-called civilizing arts, are certainly 
artistic practices when they are in the hands of someone as visionary as James, but as art forms they are more fragile—weaker even—than painting, theater, film, architecture, or music. They are ephemeral and depend more directly on the present moment and the people who wear, perform, eat, and talk in them. When the people are absent, it is difficult to recall their full breadth. Even James’s most impressive constructions are not quite enough on their own.

The civilizing arts are enjoying something of a renaissance today—it is only a matter of time before we have a food museum; but if we are going to present them in museums, we need to recognize their difference and treat them for what they are. They require undergirding and cultural surround-sound, a context in history and art. They need something more than just themselves—something that can show us why in the world people could ever have imagined, in the case of Charles James, that you could have a nude without a woman inside.